While I was off eating turkey and the like, a whole bunch of comments piled up here. I’ve tried to work through most of them, but I wanted to get this up to, even if it is short.
This story appeared in yesterday’s NYT. It’s about marriage between first cousins, which is illegal in much of the United States, but permissible in a few states and many countries and cultures. Indeed, the article notes that slightly more than 10% of marriages world-wide are between first cousins. (I believe that my grandparents, who came from Eastern Europe, were second cousins or closer.)
Many people object to first cousin marriages, and quite a few do so based on concerns about the possibility of an increased risk of genetic defects in their offspring. The article devotes a good deal of space to this concerns and refers to a 2002 study showing less risk than had been expected and also a couple of competing views in the study.
Apart from general interest, there was one observation that struck me and got me thinking a bit. Dr. Alan Bittles is a researcher in Australia and one of the authors of the 2002 study. He observed that:
People with severe disorders like Huntington’s disease, who have a 50 percent chance of passing it on to their offspring, are not barred from marrying because of the risk of genetic defects, he said, so cousins should not be, either.
I think it is important not to conflate marriage with having children. Some people marry and do not have children while other people have children and do not marry. And while the subject of the article is about first-cousin marriage, the focus of concern may really be first cousin’s having children.
That said, I think the point made is an interesting one. I would not suggest that people who carry heritable diseases be prohibited from having children, even where there is a fairly substantial risk that the diseases will occur in the offspring. Is that position inadequately sensitive to the needs of the contemplated-but-not-yet-concieved child?
I wonder about this because I think others have suggested here that we need to consider the rights of children who might be created in determining whether people should become parents. The discussion so far has largely been about same-sex parents and/or single parents. But if we should be concerned about the anticipated children in those cases, why shouldn’t we be equally concerned with carriers of heritable diseases?
Now to me, one thing that might distinguish the situations in the possible utility of genetic screening. Thus, it would be possible for those carrying heritable diseases to create a number of embryos via IVF and use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) to screen for those embryos that would not develop into children with the various diseases. I don’t exactly know what the state of current science is, but I believe it is at least possible for a number of genetic traits.
Of course, the same technology would be available to first-cousins. So it seems to me that just as genetic screening could allow carriers of heritable diseases to reproduce without too much fear, so it could do the same for first cousins.
This also makes me think more about the future of genetic screening and related technologies. On part (and I know it is only a part) of the objection to unknown gamete donors is that a child would lose access to genetic information that might be important. But genetic history might be a good deal less important if we can more accurately understand our own codes. Thus, a family history of this or that is important if we have no way of examining my genes and telling if I have that trait. But if we can examine my genes directly, then the family history is far less important.
I’m not saying we’re there, by the way. Just that it seems like we may well be on the way there. It seems that just as science/medicine is hardly done presenting us with new challenges.